PUTIN THE TERRIBLE? Vladimir Putin and Russian Democracy

Monday, November 24, 2003

On March 14, 2004, Russians head to the polls to choose a president. Current president Vladimir Putin is expected to win a second term by an overwhelming margin. Will this be a genuine democratic show of support for a popular leader or the result of a corrupt political system headed towards dictatorship? When President Bush first met President Putin in June 2001, he declared, "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.... I was able to get a sense of his soul." Is Putin the trustworthy leader that Bush saw or something much more dangerous?

Recorded on Monday, November 24, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: Putin the Terrible?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and Russian democracy, such as it may be. When President George W. Bush first met Vladimir Putin in June 2001, the President said, and I quote, "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul." On the other hand, when elections for the Russian Duma were held this past autumn and the party with which Vladimir Putin is associated, United Russia, came out firmly in control, the elections were denounced around the world as rigged and corrupt. Some went so far as to suggest that the elections were part of a plan by Putin to return Russia to dictatorship. So is Vladimir Putin the trustworthy man that George Bush saw or someone much more dangerous instead?

Joining us today, two guests. Steven Fish is a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. Michael McFaul is a professor of political science at Stanford University and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Title: Down with Law

Peter Robinson: William Safire in the New York Times, "This past December's corrupted Russian election paved the way for Putin's takeover next spring as President for life. Russia's short-lived experiment with democracy is all but dead." Russian democracy, dead. Mike?

Michael McFaul: It's not dead but it's on its lifeline.

Peter Robinson: Steve?

Steven Fish: It's dead for now.

Peter Robinson: Really? Okay. Let's talk about this corrupted election--election held in December for the Russian Duma, effectively their parliament, right? Turnout, fifty-six percent, roughly the turnout that in recent elections in Britain and Canada. Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia, wins thirty-seven percent of the vote which is less than the forty-three percent that Bill Clinton won in 1992. Nobody called that election rigged or the forty-two percent that Tony Blair's Labor Party won in 2001. Nobody called that election rigged. United Russia and its allies now hold about two-thirds of the seats in the Duma, which is about what Tony Blair and the Labor Party hold in the House of Commons. What is everybody so upset about? That doesn't sound like a corrupt result to me. When Saddam Hussein ran in Iraq, he got 99.99% of the vote.

Michael McFaul: Right. Were it a full-blown dictatorship, then we would see numbers like 99, 95%. That's right. And nobody should lose any sleep over the fact if Putin in a rather free and fair environment that his party would win those many seats, right? After all, he has an approval rating between 75, 80%.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Michael McFaul: It's natural that a guy like that would be able to get his party in this way. It's not the result that matters. It's the process of the election that matters because what you didn't read out was that in the selection, five times as many minutes went to Putin's party as the rest of the parties on national television. And where do 90% of Russians get their political news? National television. You didn't read out the fact that there was lots of harassment of those that give money to opposition parties this time. In fact, one of them, Mr. Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia, is sitting in jail right now. And so the context, you know, if you look at the bigger picture, it wasn't that the results should be so surprising. In fact, I think Putin could have won this election free and fairly and he would have had a majority but that the playing field was not level this time around. In fact, I would say it's the worst election that Russia's had since it's began having free and fair elections.

Peter Robinson: Steve, Vladimir Putin himself on the election. I'm quoting a translation obviously but it's a quotation. "It is absolutely clear that these results reflect the real sympathies of the population." And as Mike said, his own approval ratings are extremely high. October--running around on the internet looking for this stuff--October's the most recent month for which I was able to get data. But Putin's popularity was 80%. So he's right. The Russian people did want to return his party in a big way to the Duma, right?

Steven Fish: We don't know. First of all, Putin wasn't running--we'll find out in the presidential election…

Peter Robinson: Which is to take place?

Steven Fish: Which is to take place in March.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Steven Fish: We'll find out what Putin's approval rating is then. You know, there's a problem that goes beyond even what Mike mentioned, all of which I completely agree with in terms of the process and in terms of the way that the--that candidates--part--the parties were treated on television. Not only was coverage lopsided to be sure, but I think that there was probably a great deal of falsification in these elections. Now Safire probably…

Peter Robinson: Just on rigged results?

Steven Fish: Plain, rigged results. This is something that gets very little attention in the West. And one of the reasons it does is because it's very hard to investigate. The media has become so closed in Russia that there aren't very many sources that can engage in investigative reporting again. We do know--people who have looked at this closely, that in 2000, there was a great deal of falsification from the presidential election. I doubt that Putin actually got 52%. I think he probably got 44, 46%, something like that.

Peter Robinson: You're not arguing that he actually lost though? You're not arguing that he stole the election?

Steven Fish: Yes, indeed I am.

Peter Robinson: Oh, you are.

Steven Fish: I'm arguing that he stole the first--but he would have won in a second round. But that he rigged the results in such a way that he won in the first round. In Russia, if you don't get 50% plus one in the first round, you go to a second round.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Steven Fish: I think he would have had to have gone to a second round had the ballots been counted fairly and he would have won the second round, which gets back to Mike's point about the fact that he doesn't have to engage in these shenanigans to win and he does it anyway. This is the dictator's instinct. This is not a political necessity.

Peter Robinson: Steve just used the word "dictator." Is that what Putin has in mind?

Title: The Great Dictator?

Peter Robinson: Mike, in a recent article you wrote that Putin has and I'm quoting you, "a blueprint for dictatorship."

Michael McFaul: Oh, that was a typo. [laughs] No…

Peter Robinson: This is not just a strong man tweaking election results. He has a plan. Take us through the plan. You begin in your article by talking about Chechnya. Go--several steps that you say suggest there's an--he's actually following a blueprint for dictatorship. Chechnya.

Michael McFaul: Well, there are two assumptions to my argument.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Michael McFaul: One is that there was some democracy to roll back. Some might argue that there wasn't in the 90's. I happen to believe that the system was more pluralistic in the 90's than say the 80's in the Soviet period. And therefore Putin, I think, has systematically weakened or eliminated all the kind of independent sources of political power. Chechnya I write about as an example that he just doesn't care about the individual rights. He cares about the state and he's said that many times. So he's slaughtering his own people there. Second, the media. In 1999, 2000, in that electoral cycle, we had independent media. It wasn't very good but we had some independent media. Now there's none. Third, the upper house, the Federation Council as it's called--it's a complicated and I won't go into it but basically…

Peter Robinson: Has something to do with effectively governors and…

Michael McFaul: It used to be a check on his power and it's kind of like our senate. And it used to be somewhat independent of Putin and now basically fifty plus percent of the seats he appoints directly or indirectly. And now I think to add to all that--then the oligarchs. I mean, they're awful people and they made their money in wrong ways but they were independent source of political power. Now they're a lot less so. Mr. Khodorkovsky sits in jail and the rest of them are scared to death. And then add to that, this parliamentary vote which has basically made political parties independent from Putin weaker than they were just a few weeks ago. And the Duma which, in some ways, was a little bit critical of Mr. Putin, not very, but now it's totally in his pocket.

Peter Robinson: At a minimum, it was an independent source of--if not a power than of opinion. Now it's gone.

Michael McFaul: That's right. And at least there were some voices in there that would criticize the president. Now it's very difficult to see any voices there.

Peter Robinson: All right. Now you use this phrase "blueprint for dictatorship" and you're perfectly allowed to say well I did that to be provocative and to get people's attention. Is that why you used that phrase or do you really mean that he intends to take Russia right back to one man rule--perhaps he doesn't intend to slaughter millions of people the way Stalin did but he wants a strong man government. You really believe that?

Michael McFaul: I would be lying to you if I thought I knew what Mr. Putin really believes. I just got back from Russia. I talked to the people I know that knows him well and what's scary to me is that nobody knows what Mr. Putin really thinks and really wants. But that said all the steps point in the wrong direction. That is, maybe rhetorically he understands democracy's important for being part of the West, but in his actions, he doesn't act like a democrat.

Peter Robinson: All the steps point in the wrong direction. You going to go with that?

Steven Fish: I think in political terms--in terms of democracy, democratization, all the steps certainly do point in the wrong direction. Putin has done some things right. Otherwise he wouldn't be popular.

Peter Robinson: Putin is popular among Russian citizens. Now let's take a look at some of the reasons why.

Title: Putin Up the Numbers

Peter Robinson: Since taking office as President of Russia at the end of 1999, Vladimir Putin has instituted a 13% flat tax, deregulated state monopolies, overhauled the legal system and continued the privatization of land and housing that began under Boris Yeltsin. Today, Russia has the fastest growing economy in the world. It's growing faster than China. The Russian RTS stock market index has doubled in just the last year, 2003. Russia has become the fastest growing market for consumer multinationals such as Ikea, Proctor & Gamble, Nestle and per capita income in Russia is growing at an annual rate of 20%. So I repeat to you the question I started--with which I started this program--what is everybody so upset about?

Steven Fish: Well, most people in Russia are not that upset about it. They're perfectly happy with this.

Peter Robinson: That's my point. Is it simply political scientists in this country who value process…

Steven Fish: No, no, no.

Peter Robinson: …who are upset about this?

Steven Fish: Some people in Russia do care. Let's keep in mind though I'm a little dubious about 20% a year growth rates. I don't think it's doing--Russia's doing quite that well but certainly all the things that you mentioned Putin having done, the flat tax and so on--these reforms have been carried out to be sure. But overhauling the legal system--this is a guy who talks about a dictatorship of the law and yet who himself systematically violates several articles of the constitution in his own dealings with opponents. He taps their phones; he uses the agencies of what used to be called the KGB, to harass them. These are blatant violations of the constitution. If he's that serious about the law, of course, he wouldn't be violating himself. Of course, he's concerned about establishing and wants above all, to establish a dictatorship for himself. He's been completely clear about that. Whatever else is going on in his mind in terms of principles and ideology, that much he's been clear about.

Michael McFaul: There's another important thing. The erosion of democracy did not cause those economic numbers that you just described. Somehow there's this notion that by a greater dictatorship in Russia we get to China, it's not that way.

Peter Robinson: Let me set this up. Let me set this up.

Michael McFaul: Okay.

Peter Robinson: 1990's, the two great communist powers both began a transformation. And here's what happens in Russia. They set in place democratic processes right away and their economy tanks. Life expectancy goes down. The economy simply collapses. China, on the other hand, says democracy, ah, we'll talk about that a few decades from now. They grow their economy. They concentrate entirely on market reforms and the Chinese economy does indeed grow year after year after year for more than a decade now at a very rapid pace. Now Putin simply says, I think we made a mistake. We should be following the Chinese model. So he establishes a kind of autocracy at the center and gets the economy growing again. What's so wrong with that?

Michael McFaul: Because there's no relationship between the creation of dictatorship in Russia and economic growth. How in the world does shutting down an independent television station lead to economic growth? Those numbers you describe come from two and maybe three things that have nothing to do with dictatorship. One, the price of oil. The price of oil in '98 was at rock bottom. The price of oil now is thirty dollars a barrel. Russia is an oil exporting country. That's where you get the rise. Two…

Peter Robinson: In per capita income?

Michael McFaul: Yeah, and two the massive devaluation that they had in August 1998, which was a giant financial crash but then led to the production of--increased production of Russian goods. That had nothing to do with autocracy. Third, flat tax--maybe the flat tax was a good thing. I think it was. But who drafted it? It wasn't the autocrats who just have won in this last election. It was the party, the union of right forces that just got voted out of this Duma. And that's the paradox of this last election. That if you look closely at what Russian voters thought they were voting for, they thought they were voting for people that are more nationalist in status and more left of center. And the irony is that Mr. Putin has been implementing neo-liberal economic reforms drafted by the very people that are not in this parliament. So I would say that if--autocracy has nothing to do with economic growth. Other variables are involved.

Steven Fish: That's certainly true. Keep in mind too, Peter, that…

Peter Robinson: Russians were not voting for economic growth?

Steven Fish: Of course they're voting for economic growth. And if they, themselves, are associating autocracy with economic growth, they're making a mistake. The economy in Russia's been improving ever since 1998, before Putin came to power. In fact, in the year 2000, a year that Putin can't take credit for because he had just come to office. That's when the economy really recovered big time, ten percent a year growth rates. The comparison with China is misleading in many ways because what made the Chinese economy grow was not the maintenance of autocracy or the maintenance of dictatorship, it was the fact that China had a structural situation in which one could get ten percent a year growth rates out of the economy by just telling peasants, go back to what you were doing twenty-five years ago. That option doesn't exist in Russia where agriculture was fully collectivized. There are no peasants left. They don't know where their plots were three or four generations ago.

Peter Robinson: Right. So they have to start all over.

Steven Fish: In China, you could get a big bang out of that. There are many other structural factors (?) in China. If we look at the post-communist world, which means countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, those countries give us a better comparative reference for Russia than China does. And there there's a positive relationship between democratization--countries that went very quickly in terms of like Poland and Estonia--and economic performance, a very clear positive relationship. Russia both in terms of democratization and economic performance is somewhere a little under the average.

Michael McFaul: Let me remind you, for every Chinese dictator that has economic growth, there's an Angolan dictator that has no growth. And Russia in aspiring to be Singapore, I think has a much better chance of becoming Nigeria.

Peter Robinson: Next, the Bush Administration's policy toward Vladimir Putin.

Title: The Glasnost is Half Full

Peter Robinson: Putin visits President Bush at Camp David last autumn. President Bush announces that he understands what Vladimir Putin wants to do with Russia. He wants to make it--I'm quoting our president, "a country in which democracy and freedom and rule of law thrive." Now is that simply because he hasn't been reading the two of you or is Bush playing some deep game that suggests he ought to flatter Putin. What was the president thinking?

Steven Fish: He's doing what most American presidents do. He's playing the optimist. Clinton did the same thing with Yeltsin. He said that things were better than he knew they were. If Bush really thinks that Putin is trying to build democracy and open up the political system, then he's been deluded by his advisors. But knowing who his advisors are, I don't think that that's the case. He's trying to give Putin the opportunity to engage in this kind of activity that he, Bush, thinks he should be doing but he doesn't really believe this.

Michael McFaul: President Bush is really disappointed that you quoted that quote because you're never going to hear him say that or any of his advisors again. Again, there's a real change going on within the administration right now. It is forbidden to use that quote with the administration. That was a mistake from Camp David. Now there's a real reevaluation going on and they say hey wait a minute, maybe we were wrong about this guy. Maybe this guy is worse than Yeltsin.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Michael McFaul: Maybe this guy could cause us trouble in the borderlands of Russia. And maybe he is not our partner on the war on terrorism.

Peter Robinson: Barry Kasparov, best known as a chess master but actually a pretty good analyst, writes for the Wall Street Journal on Russian matters, "As the Bush Administration built its case for war against Iraq, Putin preferred the company of Jacques Chirac and Gerhardt Schroeder, not to mention doing business with Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, Russia continues to supply Iran with nuclear technology and has done next to nothing to thwart the North Korean's pursuit of Russian technology to advance their inter-continental ballistic missile program." Kasparov goes on to say how has the United States responded? With a policy, "to punish France, ignore Germany, and forgive Russia." But you're saying now they're changing their minds about that.

Michael McFaul: Well, they're having some reconsiderations. That quote allegedly is from our colleague Condoleezza Rice, right, where they said they're going to reach out to the Russians but I think there's a beginning to be…

Peter Robinson: First tell me what on earth she was thinking? Putin was not our friend as we were trying to get people to sign up for that war in Iraq. He did not help us.

Michael McFaul: No, but there was a wink and a bluff saying, you know, you do--you got to do--but right after the war, we'll get back to cooperation. That's what they had hoped for. And guess what, there wasn't a lot of cooperation on all three things that Kasparov writes about. North Korea, Iran and Iraq--it turns out that the Russians haven't given us much. So it's one thing to say okay, Russian democracy, it's complicated and the President of the United States can't do much about it anyway. I think--I agree with that. That's the conclusion of my latest book.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Michael McFaul: So we're not going to worry about that but we're going to be real politique and deal with the guy in the Kremlin and get things done. It would be great--it wouldn't be great, it wouldn't be my policy but I could understand it if you were actually getting things from the Russians. But we're not getting anything from them. So why give this guy a free pass on Chechnya? Why give him a free pass on these blatantly corrupt elections? In return for what? What is the U.S. interest that is being served by this policy?

Peter Robinson: To this point, Bush policy has been fruitless. You'd agree with that?

Steven Fish: Yes, I would agree with that.

Peter Robinson: What should it be? You two are now advising at least Condole--let's assume you're advising the President himself. What changes should he make?

Steven Fish: Well, it depends on your values. If Bush really cares about democracy in Russia and if he really thinks that a democratic Russia's going to be a better partner for the United States…

Peter Robinson: Is that what you think?

Steven Fish: Yes, I do. I do. And I...

Peter Robinson: You're not afraid of chaos in Russia?

Steven Fish: I think…

Peter Robinson: Give too much power to the governors of those various oblasts off in the periphery…

Steven Fish: I think one can recentralize power a bit as Putin has done without shutting down the free media. What's more, there isn't--this danger of chaos is really overstated. Of course if--we saw, you know, mass social movements clashing with each other in the streets like in Nazi Germany in the 30's, I'd be worried about it and I might even be completely comfortable with Putin. But Putin's establishment of this dictatorship is completely unnecessary from the standpoint of restoring order. Russia is not Latin America in the early 19--in the late 1960's or early 1970's. It is not Nazi--it is not Germany during the Weimar period in the 1920's.

Peter Robinson: It's not Spain during the Civil War?

Steven Fish: No, it's not at all. One does not see highly politicized social movements or political parties mobilizing the masses on behalf of causes that contradicted each other, clashing in the streets. There isn't that kind of chaos.

Peter Robinson: It's a fundamentally stable country. It's a fundamentally rich and well-educated country.

Steven Fish: That's right.

Peter Robinson: It is making good political and economic progress until Putin came along and he's slowed the political progress and may very well muck up the economic progress. Is that your view?

Steven Fish: More or less with the--I would add that he's done a much better administrator than Yeltsin. He's run the state apparatus better and that some recentralization--and here's where I differ from some of my fellow liberals and well-wishers of democracy in Russia--was necessary.

Peter Robinson: By whom you mean, McFaul?

Steven Fish: I think--no, not necessarily. I was in favor of some recentralization of power. I think that the local power barons, the governors and these so-called regional presidents had gotten out of control during the Yeltsin period. I was glad to see Putin recentralize power. You can't have democracy in the system that's falling--in a state that's falling apart.

Michael McFaul: But hold on. There's really one important thing here, why Russia is not Nazi Germany or even Franco's Spain because this system is incredibly corrupt, incredibly corrupt. Corruption is way on the rise under Putin. So this notion that autocracy somehow beats up on corruption--yeah, they arrest one billionaire but lots of lots of other people go on. And the problem is is that a--the only way you can deal with corruption is have a free and fair press, transparency, a way to keep tabs on these guys.

Peter Robinson: The last question for our guests. Shouldn't they have a little more patience with a country that has such a troubled past?

Title: The Pravda's in the Putin

Peter Robinson: You say to me the guy's an authoritarian and I think to myself well Franco's Spain after a couple of decades during which there was some economic growth and then they kind of grow out of it. Now you say it's extremely corrupt. And now I think of Walpole's, England. Walpole's…

Michael McFaul: Try Nigeria.

Peter Robinson: In other words, what I'm saying is…

Michael McFaul: This is a place with a lot of oil and lots of corruption.

Peter Robinson: ...this is a country that less than two decades ago…

Michael McFaul: Fair enough.

Peter Robinson: …was a communist nation and before that it has this strong man heritage of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great and Catherine--gee whiz guys, just have a little patience with these people. That's my response.

Michael McFaul: Always compared to what--I agree.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Michael McFaul: Always compared to what but the…

Peter Robinson: So what should Bush do?

Michael McFaul: When I see my friends in the Kremlin--I was just in the Kremlin a couple weeks ago…

Peter Robinson: Friends in the Kremlin, all right.

Michael McFaul: Right. He may not be there for much longer but it's like what is the relationship between shutting down a small magazine with a circulation of four thousand and this big project of economic growth? What is the relationship between denying American professors visas to come to Russia? That's happening under Putin's Russia, of denying American professors to do research? How in God's name is that affecting your plan for economic growth and strong state? I don't see the relationship between this.

Peter Robinson: You each have one change in American policy. I'm now the President. I'll do whatever you guys--I'll give you one change in American policy apiece. Steve?

Steven Fish: I would offer Russia something. Mike rightly said that we don't get much from Russia but, on the other hand, the Bush Administration really hasn't offered Putin very much. We should offer Russia something. We should offer a package that involves a great deal of debt forgiveness and debt rescheduling which we can do and which actually would be completely feasible, offer them something that really matters, not just something symbolic.

Peter Robinson: Meaning money?

Steven Fish: Meaning money and perhaps meaning continuing the policy--this would be very cynical but it could be done--continuing the policy since we're probably not going to resume the policy of criticizing Russia over Chechnya, post 9/11. You can do whatever you want in Chechnya…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Steven Fish: And in return for that, we would like to see less of the kind of autocratic behavior that…

Peter Robinson: So try to strike a deal and see if it works.

Steven Fish: Strike a deal and see if it works. They haven't…

Peter Robinson: Conduct an experiment.

Steven Fish: Russia has not been offered much by us so far.

Peter Robinson: Michael, your one piece of advice for the President.

Michael McFaul: Tell the truth.

Peter Robinson: Tell the truth?

Michael McFaul: That's all.

Peter Robinson: No more of these moonstruck statements about what a good man Putin is.

Michael McFaul: Yeah, just--we don't have money to give Russia right now. There's not a lot of support on it in Capital Hill. We've got lots of other problems in the world. Let's be honest, our ability to affect change within Russia is very limited today.

Peter Robinson: Don't call him a democrat when he's not.

Michael McFaul: Well, at least just tell the truth because that's what our democratic friends with a small "d" in Russia want us to do.

Peter Robinson: All right. Last question. Will Putin rewrite the constitution, the Russian constitution, so that he can remain in office beyond the end of his second term in 2008? I think we're all assuming that he'll win reelection in March 2004. And will he therefore become as William Safire put it, president for life?

Steven Fish: He might not become president for life but certainly the constitution will be changed. That's what this election was all about. It's possible that he will not only be able to stand for a third term but that the presidency will be linked into a French style seven years.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Steven Fish: President for life, I don't know, but certainly he will be in power…

Peter Robinson: Well-past middle age?

Steven Fish: Well-past middle age.

Peter Robinson: Michael?

Michael McFaul: I think it'll depend on the situation in 2007, that is the year before his term is up. If he has a successor that's Putin-light or Putin-heavy just like him, he can step aside and preserve his quasi image as a friend of the West. If things are really nasty, things are not going well, his approval ratings are down and his successors are not popular, then there'll be a mass movement from below saying there's no way we can live without President Putin.

Peter Robinson: A genuine mass movement? No, no, no. Orchestrated.

Michael McFaul: Funded by oligarchs and funded by the state and then he'll say, well what can I do, the will of the people have spoken.

Steven Fish: Here I differ with Mike a little bit. I think Putin wants to stay in power. I don't think that he's looking for a successor who's going to do his bidding. I think this guy is fundamentally transparently someone who wants to stay in power and aggrandize himself in power. He's going to stay here.

Peter Robinson: He loves power not money. He doesn't want to pull a Gorbachev or a Clinton and pull in big speaking fees?

Steven Fish: No, no, no. He wants to stay in power at whatever costs.

Peter Robinson: Steven Fish, Michael McFaul, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thank you for joining us.